by Guest Author Jeff Gillman of the University of Minnesota. Noticing that his current research subjects range from root slicing to gravel beds and mycorrhizae, I asked Jeff how he chooses them and got this thorough answer.

That’s never an easy question and it’s just been getting harder over the years.  We work closely with state park boards, private tree care companies, nurseries, master gardeners, and to a somewhat lesser extent the general public to find out what their major concerns are.  For example, people want to plant elms but there is concern over Dutch Elm Disease, so my research group and I have spent the last 9 years looking at Dutch Elm Disease-resistant elms here in Minnesota to find out which ones grow best here.

We really don’t have to go looking very far for potential research projects.  Everyone seems to have questions about something or another.  Do hydrogels work?  There’s a winter of research.  Do slugs cross over eggshells?  A few weeks in the summer to figure out the best methods for a research test, then a few days of testing.  Is it really a good idea to prune my tree’s roots before it’s planted in the ground?  My research group and I have been working on that for about seven years now. 

Show me the money
All of this makes it sound as though finding a research project is pretty easy.  Well….yes it is.  The hard part is funding them.  When I began my job as a professor 10 years ago we had a lot of money from the state or
federal government.  It comes with expectations that the research will be useful and fit well with my teaching duties, but other than that this money is quite flexible.  Unfortunately, over the years this funding has decreased, mainly due to the economy, so to keep doing research we have to find grants from sponsors.

Now grants are actually a good idea because they’re usually available for subjects people really care about – like elm disease.  Unfortunately that also means sometimes taking on projects we’re only slightly interested in to
meet salaries.  For example, this past year I ran two trials on herbicides for a pesticide company.  Not a big deal, but I would rather have spent my time looking at a pet project that I haven’t yet found funding for on grafting Japanese maples to improve their cold tolerance.  We’ve been able to find good sponsors for some of our
best projects but there are still tons of them we’d dearly love to take on if we could just find the funding. 

How much money?
The cost of research projects varies widely, as you’ll see from these examples.  A project that we recently conducted on the fertility needs of hazelnuts cost us about $35,000 per year for four years.  A good study on techniques for planting a tree would take 3-10 years and average about $7,000 per year.  A study of whether hydrogels actually work cost us about $1,500.  The study on whether slugs will cross eggshells?  That was
just me having fun. 

Research expenses are typically space rental (our greenhouse and field space isn’t free), buying plants (though
often we get a donor, and Bailey’s Nursery has been especially good to us), and purchase of scientific equipment, but the biggest expense of all is salaries.  My salary is paid for by the government, but everyone who works for me is paid, at least in part, by grants. 

It’s probably worth noting at this point that of those dollars that some of you have spent on my books, I’ve donated a significant portion (20 – 30%) back into research at the University of Minnesota.  I do the same with much of the money I receive in speaker fees.

If any of you are interested in a research project I would love to hear about it.  Then we’ll see if your ideas make it over the hurdles listed below.

So, what are my criteria for doing a research project?
1.  Is this a worthwhile project that will be helpful to someone (the nursery industry, gardeners, landscapers, the general public, etc.)
2.  Can we conduct this project with our expertise?
3.  Can we find some way to fund it?
4.  Can we do it without funding?
5.  Will it be fun?  I know that one sounds silly, but it’s true.  You’ve got to love what you do.  Everyone that I’m associated with here and at other universities loves their job.  We love it because we get to do what we’ve always dreamed of doing:  working with plants (and science) for a living!  And we’ll keep loving it as long as we do projects that keep us and the people we instruct informed and, yes, entertained.